walt disney, 'king of the irresistible falsehood' -- 11/8/17

Today's selection -- from Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen. With Disneyland, Walt Disney felt he was giving America a better version of itself:

"Walt Disney's ... father had worked as a carpenter on Chicago's [dazzling] Columbian Exposition [of 1893], and during Walt's child­hood, America had three big world's fairs -- in Buffalo, St. Louis, and San Francisco. Suddenly too the whole country was thick with amusement parks, hundreds of them. However, they were just better-capitalized versions of a familiar, itinerant form -- bigger rides, more freaks, supercarnivals perma­nently installed on a piece of real estate the operator owned.

"By the 1930s and '40s, when Walt Disney was busy turning a peripheral show business medium, animation, into an ambitious, high-end popular art, amusement parks had regressed to their seedy, quick-buck carnival roots. For Disney and other middle-class Americans, they were too urban, not enough like the new, orderly suburban ideal. They were, he said as he started imagin­ing Disneyland, 'so honky tonk with a lot of questionable characters running around, and they're not too safe. They're not well kept. I want to have a place that's as clean as anything could ever be, and all the people in it are first-class citizens.'

"His initial idea was one that any other show business executive might have had -- a dinky eight-acre Mickey Mouse Park in Burbank next to the studio where he made his animated movies. But no, he decided, that was too modest, and too small potatoes. He was now the mogul Walt Disney, so his second act would need to wow people. The Tivoli Gardens amusement park in Copenhagen was suitably tasteful and influenced his vision, but it wasn't big enough, just twenty acres crammed into the middle of an old city. Amer­ica needed something more incredible, more fabulous, more fantastic.

"In the 1940s there were newly hatched models in America on which Disney drew as well, museum-like tourist attractions that mixed and matched the actually old and the pretend old: ... [Knott's Berry Farm, where] a farmer named Walter Knott had started growing a freakishly large new berry, which he named the boysenberry and sold at his farmstand -- and then built attractions to get more money out of the fruit buyers; ... in Virginia, the Rockefellers had just funded the rebuilding of Williamsburg as it had been in the 1760s, a who-can-tell-the­-difference melange of hundreds of restored old and new fake-old buildings. And in Michigan on some acreage near an automobile factory, Henry Ford had created Greenfield Village, consisting of the actual buildings, transplanted from Pennsylvania and Ohio and Illinois, where Stephen Foster and the Wright brothers and Abraham Lincoln had lived and worked. ...

"Walt Disney visited all those places during the decade he was dreaming up Disneyland. ... In 1953 he bought an orange grove in Orange County -- 160 acres, a quarter-section, the elemental American land parcel -- just south of Knotts Berry Farm. ...

"Nowadays we take it for granted when we encounter people walking around in costumes, playing beings from movies or TV shows or comic books or the past or the future. We routinely shop and eat in spaces designed and built to look like 'authentic' places from other times and other countries. Before Disneyland, these were not routine experiences.

Main Street, USA

"[In the middle of Disneyland was] Main Street USA, while the most naturalistic of the 'lands' -- an old­-fashioned town center, with real shopkeepers selling real merchandise -- was Disney's single most world-changing 3-D fiction of all. It was more or less a replica of Marceline, Missouri, the small town where he'd grown up­--indeed, an amazing dream version of the sort of place where only a few de­cades earlier three-quarters of Americans had lived and shopped. It wasn't just a story or show about the good old days -- it practically was the good old days.

"On Main Street USA, there were no giant twirling teacups or mechanical crocodiles: it was imaginary -- always bright and clean, charming and happy -- but it seemed uncannily real, life with the dull and charmless bits cut out. One's disbelief approached complete suspension. The illusion was brilliantly reinforced by design tricks such as forced perspective: in each pseudo-nineteenth-century building, each story was slightly smaller than the one below it, which made the streetscape both friendlier and grander than the real things. Just as the century of American rail travel was coming to an end, diesel replacing steam and freight replacing people, at the foot of Main Street was an old-fashioned station, the head end of Disneyland's own steam­-powered passenger railroad.

"When the Disneyland opening ceremonies were televised like a prime-time news special in 1955 -- Dateline: Disneyland on the ABC network, a major investor -- who was one of the on-air celebrity hosts? The movie star Ronald Reagan, a decade before he was transmogrified into the governor of California and then president of the United States.

"Walt Disney, the Disneyland-loving novelist Andrew O'Hagan has writ­ten, was 'king of the irresistible falsehood.' Photographs often show Disney with the index and middle finger of his right hand together as though he's about to give the Cub Scout salute: he chain-smoked (and died of lung can­cer), but every time they could, he and his handlers had photographs re­touched to eliminate the Lucky Strike. 'With Disneyland,' O'Hagan says, 'Walt Disney felt he was giving America a better version of itself .... What he created was a new way of thinking about life and dreaming, a kind of American Eden.' After Disneyland opened, the term theme park was coined, and more and more of America proceeded to be themed."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Kurt Andersen


Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire


Random House


Copyright 2017 by Kurt Andersen


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